Saturday, May 19, 2012

Donna Summer, Disco and Sci-Fi

"One day in Berlin ... Eno came running in and said, 'I have heard the sound of the future.' ... he puts on 'I Feel Love', by Donna Summer ... He said, 'This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.' Which was more or less right."
-David Bowie, Sound+Vision

Donna Summer died yesterday after an undisclosed battle with cancer. With her, I feel a little of my childhood is now gone. My earliest recollection of Summer's work was probably when I was nine or ten, visiting with my brother the house of one of his friends. His friend had Summer's early Best Of, 'On the Radio' and was playing it, while his Dad, the local police sergeant, came into their lounge and dismissed the singer as "a moaning cow". We thought it was pretty funny, but the song stuck with me; hearing it frequently later on, of course, the radio, it's still one of the earliest Donna Summer singles I can easily recall. The big song of Summer's earlier career though was probably always on the radio, just not one I'd associated wth her at the time - 'I Feel Love'.

'I Feel Love' owes much to Summer's voice, but for me it's the arrangement of Giorgio Moroder that sells the track; an escalating of upper register vocals gradually climbing the scales through each verse until, finally, releasing, Summer returning to a middle range and delivering the song title in a simple repeated line for the chorus. It's a killer, and it's no surprise to me that the song's been sampled and adopted by so many over the years. The chorus is what reveals Summer's presence more, almost a snarl of a delivery compared to the seemingly modulated vocals building previously. I doubt there's any more electronic trickery there than the usual production, but the way her vocals sustain the single-note "ooooh"  with every line while a flanged synthesiser wash follows further down the scale (the closest you're going to get to a bass line in this song) and Moroder's looped rhythm track repeats its own climb up the scale, turns the vocal into another synthetic trick. It's such a succesful matching that Summer's voice is less recognisable for it; for some time I though it was Debbie Harry, another of Moroder's later collaborators.

The looped rhythm is hypnotic, perfect for the dance floor and the sound of Disco, a rare movement in music for its futurism. The late Seventies saw a natural convergence of the highly-synthesised Disco sound with the ascent of popular Sci-Fi on the big and small screen, and so the likes of Moroder, Meco (who memorably Disco-fied the themes to the first two Star Wars movies), and the incorporated SF elements in the look and music of artists like Eruption, La Belle, Boney M and Earth Wind and Fire are for me intrinsically linked to the experience of watching Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (whose chrome Cylons are the epitome of Disco-tech) and Logan's Run at the movies. Given the association it's little surprise that Beyonce would later reference the style for her own stage attire. And with her, of course, the likes of Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga. Disco for me is the soundtrack of Seventies Sci Fi, and I haven't even mentioned the likes of Geoff Love and Jeff Wayne. Need I?

So farewell, Ms Summer. A voice destined to be with us for ages to come.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"Beauty is Such a Terrible Thing"

Manic Street Preachers - 'The Holy Bible' (1994)

A lesson to the student of history, whose subject can be edifying and illustrative, but offers no recipe for happiness. The Holy Bible is a catalogue of human disaster and atrocity, a litany of inhumanity where the voice of God has instead fallen silent, and the bleak and brutal outside world looks inwards upon the soul. The album returns the gaze, being the antithesis of Gold’s inner monologue with a glare at a decrepit world with its cruel history and savage present: child prostitution, the Holocaust, serial killers, dictators, anorexia. In the hands of less-skillful musicians this could have been a blunt instrument indeed, and yet it's not - rightly lauded as one of the great albums of British rock. Yet it’s hard to find a radio-friendly single in all of it, even if the compositions are among Bradfield’s best (opening track Yes is that prime example of the lyrical iron fist within a velvet hook-lined melodic glove.)

"In these plagued streets of pity you can buy anything
For $200 anyone can conceive a God on video"

’s place in the Manics’ discography casts the greatest shadow, and everything released after this album is for better or worse held up against this release. It provides the context for the future of the band, even though it was conceived as a reaction to and rejection of the band’s early promise of chart success. Gold Against the Soul had done well enough, with the strongest single sales to date for the band, but critically it had floundered, and the band did not embrace it as their best work. Instead, Bible’s creation was marked by an eschewing of substantial budget and off-shore recording facilities (too ‘rock star’) for a smaller, more claustrophobic environment, the band retreating to a cramped studio in Cardiff's red light district in an attempt to return to the band’s earlier values and roots.

Bible is pointedly a political album, not only returning to the band's left wing roots, but marking a point where the rising Britpop culture would claim its own presence before being coopted into the New Labour election manifesto. Here's a visually uncormfortable Edwards interviewed by Paul King at the NME ‘Brat’ Awards, post-scripted by the appearance of Radiohead who would go on to occupy similar intellectual ground to the Manics with their next set of albums.

Meticulously and mathematically created with a frightening efficiency – four weeks seems no time at all for a product so refined and dense, and its immediacy is obvious. It’s put together so discreetly that it has to be treated as one whole work, even though it has no narrative nor structure, a tide of terror and repulsion punctuated by soundbites from Orwell, Camus, Dostoevsky, Ballard, and the voices of Nuremburg, the sex trade and families of the victims of Peter Sutcliffe.

 This album strikes you about the head to listen to. I listen to it rarely, not because I don’t enjoy or appreciate it, but because I’ve found that to genuinely listen I have to put myself into a particular head space. The more I listen, the deeper I sink. It is an impressive and immersive album, deeply uncomfortable to listen to in places, and difficult to take in superficially; weighed down by the postmortem facts of its creation, because The Holy Bible is also the diary of the last days of Richey Edwards.

 Recent years had marked the death of manager and discoverer Phillip Hall, and the mixed fortunes of Gold Against the Soul. Edwards had been admitted to The Priory in 1994 for treatment of (variously) alcoholism, depression, anorexia and self-harm. Generally the production of The Holy Bible saw a released Richie in obvious deterioration of mental and physical health. To listen to the album is to be forced back to the lyrics in the liner notes, James Dean Bradfield gamely wrapping his vocal chords around Edwards' nearly impossible breakneck lyrics offering little in the way of aurally deciphering them. This is no criticism, the staccato-vocals are a hallmark of early Manics songs - but then the lyrics are something else here. Within six months of the album's release and on the eve of a US tour Edwards disappeared and was never seen again.

 Perhaps the most affecting track for me is near the album's close, a merciful release after the grinding mechanical dread of the second Holocaust-themed song from the album, the aptly-titled The Intense Humming of Evil. Illustrated by innocent photos of the band members as young children, Die In the Summertime posits the desire of a world-weary mind aching to return to the vitality and happiness of youth's imagined eternal summer, the accrued wisdom of life experience providing no comfort nor enlightenment:

"I can't seem to stay a fixed ideal
Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene
See myself without ruining lines
Whole days throwing sticks into streams
I have crawled so far sideways
I recognise dim traces of creation
I wanna die, die in the summertime"

Cover story: Stark and iconic, Jenny Saville's triptych Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) regards the viewer from every angle, the rest of the cover black on white with track names and artist titles, the first instance of the manics' use of the reversed 'R', which features irregularly in future works. On the reverse and inside, crosses, angels and cemeteries, photos and schematics for every featured track.